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Much of Matthew Evangelista’s work concerns how to protect civilians from war.
Robert Barker (UPhoto)
Robert Barker (UPhoto)

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In one of Evangelista's many books, he explores the unintentional harm to civilians due to bombing, from World War II to modern day.
Robert Barker (UPhoto)
Robert Barker (UPhoto)

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Beatrice Jin
Beatrice Jin

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Evangelista wants to understand what the past can tell us about similar issues today.
Robert Barker (UPhoto)
Robert Barker (UPhoto)

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The bombing of Italy during World War II is especially relevant to today's debate on the use of military forces for humanitarian purposes.
Robert Barker (UPhoto)
Robert Barker (UPhoto)

Collateral Damage: A Warfare Challenge

by Alexandra Chang

Matthew Evangelista, Government, has tackled plenty of challenging issues related to warfare in his last five books, including weapons development, ethics in the War on Terror, and the militarization of gender. He’s edited several more volumes of work, addressing international politics, humanitarian law, and most recently, practices centered around the United States' military bombing.

“The consistent thread in my work is that I’ve always studied bad things–things that I think shouldn’t be or that we could do something about,” says Evangelista, who previously chaired the Department of Government and directed the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. Much of Evangelista’s work concerns how to protect civilians from war.

Warfare's Unintentional Harms

In the introduction of his recent co-edited book The American Way of Bombing: Changing Ethical and Legal Norms, From Flying Fortresses to Drones (Cornell University Press, 2014), Evangelista begins with a matter-of-fact remark: “Aerial bombardment as a form of warfare is just about 100 years old and is showing no signs of decline.” But as the book’s title suggests, the way in which the United States bombs has evolved in the last century.

The book evolved from papers presented at a 2011 Cornell workshop organized by Evangelista and Henry Shue, a former Cornell philosophy professor. It explores the longtime problem of collateral damage, the unintentional harm to civilians during warfare due to bombing from World War II to modern day. A dozen essays from a wide range of experts—political scientists, historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and military legal specialists—discuss how and why ethical and legal norms for protecting civilians have changed.

“The United States history of military use of air power has seen dramatic changes,” says Evangelista. At the onset of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was explicit in his stance against the German bombing of Guernica and Rotterdam, two air strikes that entailed heavy civilian casualties. “Within the course of the war, the United States was doing much worse,” says Evangelista in reference to the firebombing of cities and the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

How do these norms, which seem quite strong, completely dissolve? Once a norm is violated, is there a way to reestablish it? These are some of the questions that The American Way of Bombing attempts to answer and that Evangelista targets in his book project, tentatively titled Bombing Among Friends.

Bombing Among Friends examines the World War II Allies’ air campaign against Italy. Though Italy had previously been allied to Nazi Germany, the country overthrew Mussolini in July 1943 and signed an armistice with the Allies in September of the same year. Although they were no longer enemies, the Allies continued to bomb Italy, because the Germans occupied much of the country.

“The Italian case is important because the Italians were in an ambiguous situation,” says Evangelista. “On the one hand, the bombers are part of the force that is supposed to be liberating them from the Germans. On the other hand, many Italians were killed, not deliberately but nevertheless killed.”

“Aerial bombardment as a form of warfare is just about 100 years old and is showing no signs of decline.”

Evangelista has traveled to various Italian locales to do archival research in order to capture the attitudes of the military and political leaders on the Allied side, of the pilots and bombing crews, and of the Italian civilians. Evangelista, however, isn’t only interested in learning about these three perspectives for historical purposes. As a political scientist, he wants to understand what the past might tell us about how people face similar issues today.

The bombing of Italy is especially relevant to today’s debate on the use of military forces for humanitarian purposes. The recent conflicts in Libya and Syria are examples where the United States has used military force to protect civilians from civil war and repression but still harmed civilians in the process.

“It’s a kind of paradox because the means to save them–military means–also pose risks,” says Evangelista. “It’s a parallel to the situation of the Italians in World War II because they are not enemies of the Allies, but they are subject to the same risk,” hence the title for the book.

Papers of Myron C. Taylor and Sidney Schneider

Evangelista has tapped two Cornell resources for his research. The first are the Myron C. Taylor papers, which Taylor, an 1894 Law School alumnus, donated to the university. During World War II, Taylor played an important role in handling communications between the Vatican and the Allies as President Roosevelt’s personal envoy. One of the controversial issues of the time was whether Rome and the Vatican should be protected from bombing because of their cultural, religious, and historical significance.

Ultimately, Rome was bombed several times and Vatican properties were destroyed. In Taylor’s papers are four thick folders about the bombing of Rome. Evangelista says that he is trying to piece together the nature of communication between Taylor, the Vatican, and Roosevelt in order to understand what happened, why it happened, and the impact Taylor had.

The papers of Sidney Schneider, a World War II bombardier who served with author Joseph Heller, are another resource for Evangelista. Although Heller’s novel Catch-22 is wholly fiction, Evangelista is interested in examining the characters’ attitudes, because the book seems to be based on Heller’s own experiences with a bombing crew in Italy. Schneider’s papers, which were also donated to Cornell, offer a real world parallel to Heller’s literary contributions.

Evangelista, a Cornell PhD '86 alumnus, says that the university offers not only useful archival papers but also a broadminded approach to research. “Cornell is interested in making connections across fields and departments,” he says. In his current project, Evangelista examines film and literature, along with historical and political events. “I feel freer to work on projects that interest me, and people support that here.”